Memory Motel: Kiko Turns 20, Steve Berlin Reminisces
Recalling Los Lobos' 1992 masterpiece.
In 1992, America was smack dab in the middle of the grunge revolution, as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, et al overwhelmed the airwaves, MTV, and seemingly every available inch of press. It seemed like a tough time for U.S. rockers interested in approaching things with a little more subtlety and sonic experimentation. Fortunately for us all, Los Lobos has never made a habit of paying attention to trends or mutating their muse to meet the demands of the marketplace. Otherwise we might never have had Kiko, the album that marked both a drastic left turn and an artistic peak for the L.A. outfit.
On the occasion of the still-remarkable album's 20th anniversary - which is being commemorated not only by a Kiko concert recording/video [Kiko Live] and a deluxe reissue, but also a batch of full-album Kiko shows -- Los Lobos' Steve Berlin recalls that the album's innovative feel was initially born from frustration. For the recording of their previous album, The Neighborhood, and the tour supporting it, Los Lobos followed too many other people's advice and ended up broke and disillusioned. Vowing to do things their own way, they demoed up a batch of new songs that threw the rulebook out the window. "We came out of that with seven songs," Berlin says, "all of which went on the record, most of which went on as is, more or less. The demos became the masters."
It was only when they got ready to take the next step that the rest of the Kiko dream team fell into place. "When we took the demos to Lenny Waronker and Mo Ostin at Warner Bros, who were our label at the time," explains Berlin, "they're the ones that recommended that we hook up with Mitchell [Froom] and Tchad [Blake]. Producer Froom and his engineer pal Blake were still making their reputation and were as eager to try something different as the band. When they all came together, they turned the recording studio into a sort of musical mad scientist's laboratory. Saxophonist/keyboardist Berlin recalls leaping into the experimental spirit of the sessions with relish. "Mitchell had an amazing collection of incredible keyboards and really unique analog sounds," he says, "He had like a small warehouse of bizarre keyboards right next to the actual recording studio. So anytime we needed something weird we'd just kind of trundle over there and pull out some kind of crazy-ass thing from the 19th century that sounded like a harpsichord at the bottom of a well [laughs]. Obviously with the horn stuff I got to explore a lot of weird notions that I had, but I think a lot of those keyboard sounds and a lot of the undefinable sounds were things that Mitchell brought in."
According to Berlin, the whole band made the most of the opportunity to push the sonic envelope while crafting Kiko. "One of the other games we would play," he remembers, "was we would see who could bring in the weirdest effects pedal, and then figure out how to use it. Quite a few days, before the session started, we would have a pilgrimage to a pawnshop and open boxes until we found some weird-ass pedal that nobody knew what it was. There was a lot of twisting and torturing of sounds. Some of it was miking stuff through tubes and trying to do stuff with miking techniques, just the weirdest things we could think of. You never know where it's gonna go, but more often than not we were rewarded with these Rube Goldberg contraptions that would actually sound like something."
The result of all these tweaks and trials was an album that plays like a trippy travelogue, something like the White Album as recorded by Salvador Dali in East L.A. Every song on Kiko pulls the listener in a new, unexpected direction, be it the ethereal folk of "Saint Behind the Glass," the psychedelic blues of "That Train Don't Stop Here Anymore," the swampy apocalypse of "Wicked Rain," or the carnival-gone-wrong "When The Circus Comes," to name just a few. Offbeat elements are even added to relatively straightforward songs like "Reva's House," which in its essence could almost have been a roots-rocking Grateful Dead outtake. "That would definitely be the case," agrees Berlin, "the sense of ‘Let's just go for broke, nothing has to be normal.' I think ‘Reva's House' is a good example -- the solo kind of comes out of nowhere, and arrangement-wise it's kind of whacked-out. But it wasn't like we were trying to out-weird each other or make it intentionally bizarre, it's where the songs wanted to go, and frankly, that's kind of the way we've treated everything we've done since."
Kiko has become such an important part of Los Lobos' legacy that even taking all of the album's 16 tracks out for a spin in concert doesn't represent such a huge step for the band. "There's really only four [Kiko songs] that we don't play on a fairly regular basis," reveals Berlin. "We play ‘Kiko [and the Lavender Moon]' almost every night. ‘Dream In Blue' has always been a staple. It's really just ‘[Wake Up] Dolores,' ‘Reva's House,' ‘Two Janes,' and I think ‘Rio de Tenampa' that haven't been a major part of the set list in a while. But whenever we start rehearsing them again they're really fun songs to play, and it's a really enjoyable show doing the Kiko stuff live. We don't really try to slavishly recreate anything, we just kind of do it the way we sound now. We're really trying to just capture the essence. The recreation part is not as important to us as capturing the spirit of it and playing it with the same sense of abandon that we made it in. The highest value of that record was just trying to capture the least mindful moment."
|"Dream in Blue" (Kiko Live)|
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